30 Basho items revealing his "compassonate intuition" can be resources we use to discover and nourish compassion within ourselves. Autumn wind / saying not a word / child in tears.
We begin with a study of compassion in three renku stanzas. The first poet offers a tray to Basho; the tray is empty, but has lots of space for Basho to fill in. The tray provides boundaries -- femininity, Buddhism, eloquence -- in which Basho creates compassion:
The old Buddhist nun recalls, with some enthusiasm, a moment in her long life when she commanded a temple servant to go out and rescue that baby crying. Buddhism tells us to let go of attachments and accept the passage of life and death – but this nun chose instead to actively save a life. She feels the glory of her deed, and so do we.
Kikaku compounds that compassion by extending it to another species. The nun and the temple disappear. A deer – probably female -- found the abandoned child in the mountains, and was “filled with pity” for this baby of another species. Realizing her inability to do anything for the baby, she walked, carrying compassion with her, to a village where she chose a human being with a warm heart, and pulled on her sleeve, to get her to come up to where the child was. The poet transfers the pity in Basho’s stanza to an entirely different species and reality, so compassion transcends the barriers between us and another life form.
Japanese monkeys, the only ones in the world whose native habitat is so far north, live in packs of about ten in mountain forests. In autumn they eat all the fruits, berries, seeds, leaves, insects, and crabs they can find, so they grow fat with the thick fur needed to survive winter in a Japanese mountain forest.
Basho is traveling through the mountains from Ise to his hometown Iga in 1689
When it starts to rain, Basho hurriedly puts on his mino, a cape woven of straw and waterproofed with persimmon juice. He then sees a monkey shivering beside the road and simply presents his immediate child-like compassionate thought -- compassion expressed in that word “too”.
Compassion is the virtue of empathy for the suffering of others. It is regarded as a fundamental part of human love, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection and humanism — foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood. (Wikipedia)
This is most profound – whereas Basho is utterly simple. Adults do not think so simply – unless they are adults who think like children. Adult thoughts are more complicated and knowledgeable. Basho always thinks the simple way. This is what he teaches us – to go back to the beginnings of thought, the thoughts in childhood that begin the development of Compassion.
Late September, 1684, Basho traveling with his follower Chiri:
Basho says “I toss some food as we pass by” which sounds pretty callous — as if he were throwing scraps to a dog — but these words are an idiom – like “raining cats and dogs” – that does not really mean what it says. Japanese Language instructor Shoko says Basho’s real meaning (honne) here is something like: “I’m sorry I cannot give the child any good food.” What this child needs is simple: a woman with a home. Two men traveling with no baby care skills will not suffice. Basho scholar Imoto Noochi conveys, with great precision, the feeling in Basho’s Japanese heart: “In his powerlessness he was overcome with self-recrimination.” Self-recrimination: beating himself up because he has no effective way to help the infant.
To the ancient poets who sang of the pathos in monkey’s cries:
Basho has given us a sketch of the dilemma that confronts us each time we encounter the poor or homeless; do I walk by and forget? Do I toss a few coins or a word of greeting to the person? Do I wish the government or a charity would do something? Or do I actually help the person? And how can I truly help?
A layer of white frost coats the ground as a bitter wind whips by.
This child may not be ‘real’ but instead be part of a metaphor, a poetic expression for the feeling in the actual frost and wind. In Basho’s time, however, and our time as well, children do sleep without adequate shelter or blankets; this child huddling for warmth can be as real to us as our hearts allow.
First, here is a single renku stanza by itself
Because this single stanza gives no hint of circumstances, we can imagine the child in any circumstances shedding silent tears. Basho quietly, subtly, compassionately focuses on another human being, a child who can be any child. Below, this stanza appears with its previous stanza, and with its following stanza, so we see how Basho followed and how he set the stage, so we more deeply explore the nature of compassion.
A man has cut a fine stalk of bamboo to make a hunting bow, and wipes off the morning dew. The child weeps because father is going to kill an innocent animal -- but can speak no word of this to his imposing patriarch who would not respond kindly to such criticism from a small child. I find here a message that we should protect animals in the wild, be saddened by their being killed, and oppose their killing.
In Japan and other Asian cultures, white is associated with death, and the deceased is wrapped in a white shroud and placed in a coffin in a sitting position. The coffin was carried on a litter to the burial place, accompanied by a procession of mourning relatives and priests intoning sutras. The coffin containing the white-shrouded corpse moves through the long rows of mourners. The child in silent tears watches the coffin and corpse continue away from him, as the father’s spirit also departs from the child’s heart.
So we can explore Basho’s stanza 1) by itself, similar to a haiku, saying nothing about the child or the sadness, leaving it up to us to imagine; 2) with the previous stanza, feeling the relation between animal-loving small child and hunting father, and 3) with the following stanza, the child watching his deceased father’s coffin move away.
The Buddhist temple, Hase-dera founded in the year 686, has long been a place of pilgrimage for women. Many noble women and ladies-in-waiting at the imperial court in Kyoto came here to pray to the famous Eleven-Faced Kannon, a 30-foot tall statue in relief of the Goddess of Mercy, carved from a single log of camphor, the largest wooden image in Japan. Anthropologist Michael Ashkenazi says of Kannon, “for most people she carries the possibility of restoring and continuing life.” Women commonly pray to the Goddess of Mercy for love, to bear a child, for a child to succeed in school or life, or for relief from hardship .
Finally, in April, enough warmth has accumulated so even night is warm and tranquil; a time for the heart to find solace and renew hope.
Taking off our shoes at the entrance, we step quietly onto the finely polished hardwood floor. Before us rises Kannon-sama, five or six times our height, the compassion in her face and figure radiating to every part of the hall. Over there, in a corner, someone barely seen in the faint lantern light sits in communion with the Goddess. Who is she? Why has she come here alone at night? What is she praying for? Kon says “in the one now hidden before my eyes, the images (of all the women who came here in the past) pile up one on top of another to attract my heart.” This woman and her prayers to Kannon-sama convey a tender mystery known in temples and churches throughout the world -- this world where men make decisions but men are inconstant, and all women can do about it is pray to a goddess for compassion. Through this haiku women suffering from patriarchy today can connect to their sisters suffering three centuries ago.
In 1686 Basho’s follower Kyorai took his 9-year-younger sister Chine on a pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine.
In his Ise Journal Kyorai records his compassionate observation of her:
Kyorai actually pays attention to his sister’s mind and heart; a unique moment in world literature. Basho seems to have watched with attention his youngest sister Oyoshi growing up six or seven years behind him; and she may be the model in his imagination for his many verses on “little sister.” Basho’s mentions her name four times in his letters, and no other sister even once. Basho reading Kyorai’s description of Chine may have felt a similar compassion for Oyoshi.
In summer of 1688, Basho learned that Chine had died at age 28. Unable to be with Kyorai’s family in their grief, he sends a haiku of condolences, an image of compassion to comfort them.
Clothing gets musty in the warm moist summer, so one sunny day everything is hung outside to “air in the heat.” One of Chine’s kosode, a simple kimono for household wear, kept as a memento, hangs outside with the rest of the family’s clothing. The traces of Chine’s being linger in the fabric she wore, to gently disperse in the warm breeze. This haiku is for Chine’s family members to recall in the years to come; the people who lived with her and now must live without her. When they read or think of Basho’s gift, the vision of Chine in the haiku will bring on memories of Chine alive.
The temple provides braziers for mourners to warm their hands during the service. The tears fall on the embers -- glowing coals covered by ashes -- to extinguish that bit of fire, boiling for an instant before turning to steam.
A stupa is a wooden tablet set up by a tomb with phrases from a sutra written for the repose of the dead's soul. This, unlike her baby, will remain. Mourners remained all night long in a mourning hut. I believe this “shadow figure” is the spirit of the dead child returned for a moment to warm and console mother with the gift of fire. Later in life, whenever she builds a fire, she will feel her child’s presence.
The weight of grief at losing their child has withered and bent the parents, like bamboos bowed down under snow.
This monk has modern progressive ideas about children who have difficulty learning; he says they should be praised and supported, rather than criticized and taken down. Basho follows with pity for the learning disabled child: often under an orange tree, as in the garden of an abandoned house, fallen fruit lies in the dew and frost for months, sweet pulp oozing out cracks in the peel, looking altogether wretched – so the child’s brain rots from lack of stimulation.
A wooden bath tub never filled with water dries out and cracks. If a section of the brain is hardly ever used, it also leaks. So in childhood use it every day with praise, so leaks do not occur.
The falcon, bred for hunting, is an exceedingly masculine image, yet in old age feels the loss of life force. Basho leaps to the humanity of a widow in an old house she can no longer maintain. The torn screen makes me think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations with her torn sock.
Here is a house (or shack) where the residents feel threatened; they startle at ordinary autumn sounds in a rice-growing village: the clatter of noisemakers hung over fields of ripening grain to scare away hungry birds. They allow the trees and shrubs surrounding the house to grow wild, so from the road only one window can be seen. Is that window an eye watching the road, armed and ready, to defend his freedom? All that in two short lines. Basho continues, clarifying that the householder is a thief, yet focusing on the woman married -- probably without license or ceremony --- to this creep. We imagine his lack of concern for how she feels – however Basho’s concern is for her. Chosetsu’s stanza is profound social realism, but a masculine, anti-social reality. Basho looks rather with compassion at the female side of the gender coin.
The word imo can mean “wife” or “lover” or “younger sister,” but because Basho is the one author in world literature who often writes about children and teenagers, I will take her to be a younger sister wretched at some upset in her search for love. Basho’s question really has no meaning, but the compassion in it may somehow console the lovesick sister –
Basho suggests, in a verse suitable for a modern parenting magazine, the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl. He creates that emotional turmoil, then also creates a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter. The daughter broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria. we imagine her
shaking all over. Her mother – or someone like a mother –manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her down.
Basho portrays the mother caring, with sensitivity and wisdom, for her daughter, acting not for herself, but rather to calm down another person. Sam Hamill, a scholar who knows only Basho haiku and not his renku, claims that Basho was “at times, cold-hearted, inhuman” – however the poems Hamill does not know
contain much itawaru, caring for others.”
Almost the very last words in Basho’s journal, A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, expresses his ideal for humanity:
The poems in this article contain little joyfulness, however they abound with caring:
Blackwood is a type of firewood that burns slowly giving off dark heavy smoke that accumulates over the walls and ceiling and inhabitants. What sort of person lives in such a place? Basho focuses on the daughter within this shack in a mountain hollow where the sun never shines; he reaches into her heart. There are no available bachelors in her world, no one to marry a girl so grimy with soot, her bones soft and bent with rickets from chronic vitamin D deficiency. All she can do is long for a love she will never know.
Still sick and weak from a difficult delivery, she provides sustenance for a new life. As she sits nursing the baby in her arms, “tears of dew” are her tears falling on the baby, the thin watery fluid coming from her malnourished breasts,the summer sweat between two feverish bodies, the utter misery of their existence – while the father is…
The net is a small one where she and the baby sleep. Sitting inside to eat and nurse the baby, her world is reduced to the smallest dimensions, as small as her hopes for herself and her baby, as miniscule as his concern for their welfare. Charles Dickens tells the sordid lives of poor and deprived women such as Nancy in Oliver Twist, but 160 years before Dickens, Basho used fewer words to create profound images of the misery of women in patriarchal relationships.
The diaphanous net hangs loosely from four ceiling points over her with head tall in the center. Can this represent an emaciated breast with its nipple? The “meal tray” then is the milk-producing glands inside the breast. Is this Basho’s link to the previous verse? Is this image too physical, too feminine and fleshy to come from the mind of the poet-saint Basho? Not at all. So frequently and vividly he portrays the female body, although such verses are not the Basho poems they teach in schools.
The man promised her love and devotion, but when she delivered a boy, he took the child to be his heir, and abandoned her. With no other place to go, she entered a Buddhist temple which takes in such women. She had to cut her hair and live in a cell. Milk still forms in her breasts which she squeezes out to throw away, while she recalls dreams the baby this milk is produced for, such is the bitterness in her heart.
Her husband transferred to a distant place, thoughts of him remain, she speaks her sadness to the infant nursing at her breast. Basho transforms her into a woman holding the pear-shaped instrument on her lap close to her chest, the way she holds a similar shaped baby. He combines the melancholy notes of the lute with her distraught sobbing, from evening through night into day.
This person boiled rice but only in a dream so it cannot be eaten for dinner. Likewsie, one who cares not for others is not really living but merely waiting to die. Thus compassion makes life real.
Noh plays contains many madwomen such asthe 9th century poetess Ono no Komachi who spent her youth in romance and luxury at Court to lose all, including her sanity, and die as a beggar in rags.
The alliteration of ‘h’ sounds contains the feeling of huddling, lying curled up on one side, holding in the warmth around the chest and abdomen. Getting between the heavy quilts, shivering till my old blood warms the space so I can go to sleep. All alone where she used to lie nearby. The nights are long and bitter, and the sun brings no warmth till late morning. With these few words, Basho captures the experience of Rika, or anyone who has lost a spouse in winter.
Someone has kept silent about mother since she died, but now blurts out thoughts. Such a person is likely to say “I did not do enough for her when she was alive” – which leads to Yaba’s stanza of caring for an older woman, touching her tumor with sensitivity to soothe away the pain.
In the spring of 1691, Uko cut her hair to shoulder-length to become a nun, although she continued her family life with her husband and infant daughter. Her becoming a nun had little to do with Buddhism; I believe what she really wanted was no more children. She was only pretending to be a nun to keep her husband off her In a letter to Uko in 1693, Basho tells her what he said about her to other people
Although you are pretending to be a nun, in reality, become ever more compassionate.
Basho writes to his follower Chigetsu, a samurai widow in her sixties:
Basho speaks of the yome, Chigetsu’s daughter-in-law who came to this household decades ago. Without Abigail Adams to remind him, Basho “remembers the ladies.” Western books on Japan emphasize the mother-in-law’s cruel oppression of the yome who lived in misery until she could pass the misery onto a younger yome -- as if nowhere in Japan did in-laws get along with each other. People cannot be generalized in this way. Certainly in Basho’s time some old mothers welcomed the future into their household.
In A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho tells the story – which may be semi-fictional – of hearing through the wall of the inn two courtesans on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine:
The play woman’s lament gives voice to all the women throughout the ages who have been ‘reduced to misery’ by the sex trade. As David Barnhill notes, “this entire passage has given rise to voluminous and varied commentary,” however in much of this commentary little attention is given to the play-women’s lament. Male scholars avert their eyes from the misery of prostitution, preferring to imagine that women are happy to provide sex the way men like it, without commitment. Ueda describes Basho’s haiku about the women as a “light-hearted, even humorous poem about two pretty courtesans who happen to lodge at the same inn.” Ueda says nothing about their misery, while Basho says nothing about them being “pretty.”
Unlike the philosophers, the speaker in Basho’s prose claims no understanding of karma—since no human can actually know what is destiny, and what is the result of personal choice, or the actions of others — but she wonders—as every woman trapped in sexual slavery must wonder — how could her life have turned out this way? She grew up in a farm village. What tragedy in the world brought her beloved parents to such poverty that they traded their daughter for a money loan?
The women see Basho and Sora’s black robes and assume they are actual Buddhist monks. They specifically ask Basho and Sora to “tie the bond” (kichien sase) that brings them into Buddhism. Although they are on a pilgrimage to the holiest shrine in Shinto, they still seek salvation through a vow to the Buddha. Basho’s response seems heartless. He ignores their request, ignores their need for reassurance, and brushes them off with a cliché. In some Buddhist thought, one should not get involved; trying to help only pulls the knot of karma tighter. This heartless response, however, may be a literary device Basho created when he wrote A Narrow Path in the Heartlands four years after the journey. Since Sora, in his factual diary of the journey, mentions no play-women at this location, it is likely that Basho made up this story, to leave his readers with a feeling. If he told us that he and Sora helped the two women, we would feel more confident about their future.
In a January, 1692 letter to his older brother Hanzaemon, Basho speaks of their nephew Toin suffering from tuberculosis who he has taken into his three-room hut to care for until the inevitable end.
Toin apparently was a fugitive from the law in Iga; he left his home when he was 15 and has not returned in 17 years, and sending a letter would have brought the authorities’ attention to the mother. Basho makes the compassionate decision to not inform his sister who had not seen or heard from her son in all this time, to let her go on with her present life. Three months later, in a letter to Kyoriku, at the end of April, 1693, we see that Toin has been sick all this time:
Thank you, Basho, for your compassion.
Toin, his common-law wife Jutei, and daughters Masa and Ofu, and son Jirobei, lived in difficult circumstances. Toin died from tuberculosis in 1693, and Jutei the next year; Basho wrote in a letter:
Five months later Basho himself lay dying in Osaka, and dictated his Will, with a message to his neighbor Ihei who led the neighborhood efforts to help this family in distress:
And so Basho died, with compassion for the two young girls, now orphans, aged 13 and 11, his grandnieces.